Tuesday, December 15, 2015
C.A. Rejects Latest Challenge to Local Judicial Benefits
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Counties may continue to pay benefits to local trial judges, including those who took office after the Legislature applied a “fix” in response to a prior decision that such benefits were unconstitutional under conditions then in effect, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The ruling by Div. Three is the third appellate decision in nearly a decade of litigation between taxpayer Harold Sturgeon, represented by Judicial Watch, and Los Angeles County over its payments to members of the local trial bench.
Judges in other counties have long complained that their benefits are far less generous than those paid by Los Angeles County, which include participation in the county’s “MegaFlex” cafeteria benefits program, along with a “professional development allowance” and a 401(k) match of up to four percent of the judge’s salary.
Those payments now total over $57,000 annually, significantly boosting each judge’s state salary of $189,041, while judges in other counties get less. Justice William Bedsworth noted yesterday that those in three small counties “receive no supplemental benefits at all,” but said those disparities can only be remedied by the Legislature.
In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630, the court held the county benefits to be “compensation,” and therefor unconstitutional because only the Legislature may prescribe compensation for judges.
Lawmakers then passed SBX2 11, creating Government Code §68220, finding that “[n]umerous counties and courts established local or court supplemental benefits to retain qualified applicants for judicial office, and trial court judges relied upon the existence of these longstanding supplemental benefits provided by the counties or the court.”
Under that legislation, counties or courts that were supplementing judges’ salaries as of July 1, 2008 were required to continue to do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. Judges in office at the time of the termination notice, however, would be entitled to benefits until the end of their terms, or, at county option, until they leave the bench.
In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2010) 191 Cal.App.4th 344, the Fourth District’s Div. One upheld the new law, rejecting the plaintiff’s claims that the existence of a county option, and the continuing disparity in benefits, both rendered the law unconstitutional.
Justice Patricia Benke described the new law as an “interim measure” that satisfied the Legislature’s nondelegable duty to prescribe judicial compensation, since it reflected a state policy and contained adequate safeguards to prevent counties from adopting means contrary to legislative intent.
Failure to pass a more “comprehensive response” to trial judge compensation would likely lead to more litigation, Benke said, predicting that “the Legislature within a reasonable period of time will act to adopt a uniform statewide system of judicial compensation.”
The prediction of more permanent legislative action did not come to pass, and the prediction of new litigation did. The court, Bedsworth wrote, therefore “must respond to Cassandra,” whose “punishment for refusing to have sex with Apollo was a ‘gift’ of accurate prophecy accompanied by the curse of having no one listen to her.”
Orange Superior Court Judge Kirk Nakamura dismissed Sturgeon’s new lawsuit, sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend. Sturgeon’s motion to transfer the appeal to Div. One, on the ground that division decided the first two appeals, was denied.
Bedsworth said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the passage of time had not rendered the new law unconstitutional.
“[T]he Legislature built better than it knew,” the justice said, concluding that while further legislation may be desirable, it is not constitutionally necessary, because the law does not delegate compensation decisions to counties.
“Properly construed, section 68220 requires those counties paying supplemental benefits as of July 1, 2008, to continue paying them on the same terms and conditions as were in effect on July 1, 2008, and to pay them to all judges of the county’s superior court, not just those judges who held office as of July 1, 2008,” Bedsworth explained. “Counties thus have no discretion under section 68220 to fix compensation – it has already been fixed by the Legislature.”
‘Plain, Mandatory Language’
The jurist concluded that “[t]he plain, mandatory language” of the statute supported the county’s position, even though the Legislative Counsel’s Office interpreted the legislation as applying only to judges who were receiving supplemental benefits on July 1, 2008. In providing that benefits should continue to be paid to judges “of a court whose judges received” such payments, lawmakers made “a painstaking, carefully considered organization of words that illuminates the content of the statute.”
This “very unusual and particular phraseology,” he said, “…is not only unambiguous, it is meticulous and carefully chosen,” and cannot be ignored by the court.
Bedsworth acknowledged that the court’s interpretation renders as surplusage a sentence in the legislation reading: “The county is also authorized to elect to provide benefits for all judges in the county.”
But the canon imploring courts to avoid treating legislative language as surplusage cannot be followed, the jurist said, where it would be inconsistent with the clear intent of the Legislature and would render the legislation unconstitutional under the first Sturgeon decision.
“As between an interpretation of a statute that renders it unconstitutional in operation, and an interpretation that makes it constitutional even though it jettisons a sentence, we must of course choose the latter,” he said.
The case is Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, G05016.
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